Wetland buffers: return of ‘cookie-cutter’ approach

Planning Commission recommendations to amend wetland protection buffers in the Critical Areas Ordinances were received favorably by the San Juan County Council at its Dec. 10 council meeting, but action was deferred until February pending further consideration and a public hearing.

The proposed changes were fashioned in response to issues raised by the Growth Management Hearings Board in its decision on appeals filed earlier this year by Friends of the San Juans, the Common Sense Alliance and others. The GMHB essentially ruled in favor of contentions of Friends, but both Friends and the Common Sense Alliance have appealed the GMHB decision to the San Juan County Superior Court.

The ordinances were passed after a contentious six-year process and must now be amended and returned for review by the GMHB in order for the county to achieve compliance with the state Growth Management Act.

The wetland protection buffers were, and still are, among the most fought-over parts of the ordinances. The county council in 2012 decided not to follow state Department of Ecology guidelines, but the planning commission decided during its November deliberations to adopt the DOE’s method of determining water quality buffers.

The staff presentation to the council says the planning commission’s recommendation addresses the GMHB’s decision in four ways: critical areas are protected within the “Best Available Science” range included in the CAO adoption record; the lower pollution percentage removal and the controversial methodology originally adopted by the county in the CAO are eliminated; using the DOE guidance establishes buffers, a so-called “one-size-fits-all or “cookie-cutter” approach, which comport with best available science; and the risk for failure to protect critical areas is reduced from “high” to “moderate”.

Friends attorney Kyle Loring applauded the recommendation in a statement: “By using one of Ecology’s standardized, site-specific buffer methods, the county can rely on a tested model that increases predictability and lowers costs for landowners while at the same time providing better protection for our wetlands, streams, and seas, and the critters that need them. Friends supported this approach in 2007 and continues to support it today.”

Dave Cable, president of the Common Sense Alliance, said that he was “a little disappointed” in the planning commission plan and that CSA’s appeal to the Superior Court would continue.

The council continues to follow its schedule for compliance with the GMBH decision, which includes another hearing on Dec. 17 on the recommended changes, a public hearing on Feb. 11, council deliberations and decision on Feb. 18 and filing of the revised CAO with the Hearings Board no later than March 5.

Both the original CAO and the revisions are intended to become effective March 1, although the Common Sense Alliance has asked the Superior Court to freeze the effective date of the CAO until all appeals are finally decided.


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